Listen to contrapunctus I: https://youtu.be/C82rGpPktCw
Listen to contrapunctus III: https://youtu.be/5DCPoyhwOsM
Listen to contrapunctus V: https://youtu.be/ALjSKpSfk54
About the composer: Bach… to the future!
To describe and comment the works of Johann-Sebastian Bach could probably take several lifetimes. One of the last composer of the Baroque period, he wrote over than a thousand compositions and can be considered as one of the greatest composer of all time. He led the Baroque musical forms and the art of counterpoint to the perfection. He trained and inspired many musicians, and a great part of the history of composition and interpretation can be understood as a rediscovery of Bach’s music.
His work can be considered has a synthesis of German, Italian and French Baroque styles. Depending on the role he was given in various towns, he wrote music in every form except the Opera (Fugues, Cantatas, Suites for various instruments or Orchestra). Most of organ’s works were written in Weimar, religious music in Leipzig, and instrumental pieces in Kothen.
One might ask why this music, which was almost unknown when J-S died (in 1750), so much spread in Europe, in the west, and more recently in Asia?
Some features of Bach’s music may give an answer, such as the Christian compassion (even in his secular works), and the educational aspect of the harpsichord works, or the use of those pieces as a teaching material (Clavier-Ubung, Das Wohltemperierte Clavier, Inventionen und Sinfonien,…). Moreover, the rhythmic aspect of this style has something in common with the XXth century and Jazz (the Baroque “engine” and the Vivaldi “swing”). Another common point with Jazz is that musicians of the Baroque period had to improvise ornamental notes or some parts of the pieces (especially in Preludes and Codas).
But the most important reason of this success is probably the skills with which Bach uses chord changes and melodic lines (harmony and counterpoint). That is what makes his music so original and modern (particularly in Contrapunctus III of the Kunst der fuge) and why it can be played in so many different ways.
J-S Bach born in 1685 (like Domenico Scarlatti and Heandel). The Bach’s were a family of more than 50 musicians in the country of Erfurt, working for churches and local Princes. J-S Bach was the younger of 8 kids and learnt music with his brother (an organist and student of Pachelbel) and father (who played trumpet), and by himself. He studied violon, harpsichord, organ, counterpoint and the making of musical instruments (especially Organ).
After his parents died, the young 9 years old J-S lived with his brother Johann Christoph Bach. At the age of 15 he decided to follow his friend Georg Erdmann to the Michaelisschule in Lunebourg and walked 300 kilometers to join him. There was a great library in this town and that’s where J-S discovered composer such as Claudio Monteverdi, Johann Pachelbel, Rolland de Lassus, Jean-baptiste Lully and François Couperin. In the school of Lunebourg, he also studied Greek, Latin and rhetoric (which is important in Baroque forms).
In 1703, J-S went to the town of Arnstadt where he worked for Jean Ernest III, and inaugurated the organ of the church.
In 1705, Bach walked 400 kilometers (once again!) to go to the town of Lubeck, to pay a visit to the organist Dietrich Buxtehude. Buxtehude, who was going to retire, wanted Bach to replace himself if he agreed to marry his daughter, but he refused.
After an absence of several months, and because they complained about his style of music, tensions began to rise between Bach, the municipality of Weimar and the church members. J-S even fought with a bassoonist.
That’s why in 1707, he settled down in the city of Mulhausen (in the region of Thuringe) where he was organist. At that time, Bach wrote a great part of the Cantatas, and married Maria Barbara, a distant cousin.
However, in this town people refused to play music during the church service, so J-S went to Weimar where he worked for Guillaume II. There he played organ, violon and directed the instrumental and vocal ensemble. At that time, Bach lived in Ernest August’s castle, nephew and heir to the duke of Weimar. It was there that Bach studied Vivaldi’s concertos, which he rewrote for organ and harpsichord (tutti and solos are played in two different keyboards).
One more time, tensions appeared with his employer. Indeed, when the chapel master of Weimar died, the Duke refused that Bach replaces him.
So in 1717, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Kothen, the Duke’s brother in law, proposed Bach to be the next chapel master of the town of Kothen. Bach was jailed for one month for having accepted this position. During this stay in prison, he wrote the Orgelbuchlein, a compendium of 46 church songs for organ.
As a Calvinist, Prince Leopold was not allowed to play religious pieces, and wanted Bach to write secular music. When the Berliner musicians, who were dismissed by Frédéric-Guillaume the first, decided to move to Kothen, it gave to Prince Leopold the opportunity to start an orchestra. During this happy time, Bach composed the Brandenburg concertos, Das Wohltemperierte Clavier, and several works for flute, violon, harpsichord…
Unfortunately, this golden age ended when Bach’s wife died in 1720. Moreover, Prince Leopold had to increase defense spending and couldn’t devote such a part of the budget to the music any more.
That’s why in 1723, the Bach family moved to Leipzig. As no composer had accepted to become the next Chapel master of this town, the municipality finally proposed this function to J-S Bach. He lived there until his death. During this period, Bach wrote St John’s Passion, the Clavier-Ubung, the Mass in B minor, … And his second wife, Anna-Magdalena Wilcke, helped him to copy scores.
In 1747, Bach entered the Mizler Society of Musical Sciences, for which he wrote the Canonic variations and the Musical offering, which is based on a theme by the king Frederic II of Prussia. One of Bach’s sons, Carl Phillip Emanuel, was a harpsichord player at the court of Frederic II. That’s how J-S Bach was invited in Potsdam to play the Musical offering on a “piano and forte” to his majesty.
Unfortunately, Bach went blind in 1745 and died after a cataract “surgery” during the summer of 1750. Even after his death, Bach was just known to be a great organist.
At that time, it was the end of the Baroque era. Baroque style and counterpoint were already “has been”. Alberti bass used in keyboards instruments, which is based on a bass with arpeggios, and pre-classic forms (Sonata) began to replace counterpoint and Baroque style. This artistic change went together with the revolutionary ideas that had already taken root among the people in Europe.
After J-S died, his sons Carl Phillip Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann kept some of his scores. That’s how Mozart could discover Bach’s music in 1782 (thanks to the Baron Gottfried van Swieten in the court of Frederic II), and later Felix Mendelssohn. In 1829, for the first time since Bach’s death, Mendelssohn conducted in Berlin the Saint Matthew Passion. Nowadays, it is trite to say that during the XIXth century, the Romantic generation has been influenced by Bach’s music.
In the XXth century, Baroque music performers such as Glenn Gould, Sviatoslav Richter, John-Eliot Gardiner, Gustav Leonardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt brought a genuine revival of Bach’s music.